To What Extent Has the Importance of the Tet Offensive of 1968 Been Overrated?

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To what extent has the importance of the Tet Offensive of 1968 been overrated?

On January 30th 1968 over 80,000 Vietcong soldiers launched a surprise attack on over 100 towns and cities in South Vietnam. This is known as the Tet Offensive. The US army and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) launched a counter-attack which regained all lost territory and crippled the military capabilities of the Vietcong. Some historians argue Tet was not as important as it appears to be. However, it is widely considered to be a pivotal turning point in the Vietnam War, causing the US military to change strategy to Vietnamisation, turning US public opinion against the war, and resulting in President Johnson not standing for re-election. It it provided a catalyst for change by revealing that the USA could not win, resulting in the gradual withdrawal of US troops. The Tet Offensive marked the beginning of the end of American combat forces in Vietnam.

The analysis of opinion polls from before and after the Tet Offensive demonstrate that US public support for the war had dramatically reduced, most likely as a consequence of media coverage. Before the Tet Offensive, the proportion of Americans who thought of themselves as hawks (pro-war) stood at 60%, but afterwards that number had dropped to 41% . This significant drop in public support could have resulted from the fact that the Vietnam War was the first televised war: “The scope, scale and intensity of the Vietcong Tet Offensive shocked most Americans. Nightly, television news beamed the sights and sounds…of battles…into American living rooms. ” Most Americans had not seen many images of American defeats because “initial coverage generally supported US involvement in the war.” In fact, in 1967 the US government’s ‘Victory Campaign’, which most media organisations supported, increased Johnson’s approval rating to 48%. During the Tet Offensive the US public saw graphic pictures of Americans being killed and brought home in body bags. This challenged the idea of American invincibility that had been unquestioned since World War II. Furthermore, after Tet, influential figures started speaking out against the war. Walter Cronkite, the most watched television news presenter in America in 1967, visited Vietnam after Tet and produced a special report on the war, in which he said, “… it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate” and that, “the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” President Johnson, after watching the report, said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” The Tet Offensive reversed all Johnson’s political gains made in 1967.

In contrast to the above views, Niall Ferguson argues that the Tet Offensive did not have such a profound impact on US public opinion which he supports with a graph illustrating that public support for the war had already been steadily decreasing since 1965. Furthermore, Gary Hess questions the influence of television media during Tet on the basis that “… only about one third of the public watched any television news.” Despite such views, the Tet Offensive appears to be the watershed event after which public support for the war never recovered. According to Ferguson’s graph, public support never went above 50% after 1968. Furthermore, though Cronkite’s viewing audience was restricted, his opinion that the war could not be won was widely reported on the radio and in newspapers. After Tet the media began consistently to portray the war in a negative light, which ultimately contributed to the collapse of public support for the war by 1973.

Tet had a significant impact on US politics. George Herring, one of the most prolific historians of the Vietnam War, argues that Tet carries huge significance because it sparked a leadership crisis in the Democratic Party....
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